JOHN MARTYN - In concert with Mose Allison Thursday night at the Jazz Workshop. Allison only continuing through Sunday.
By Steve Morse
John Martyn was fidgeting. His eyes shot around his backstage dressing room as if looking for escape. He was receiving compliments left and right, yet he was embarrassed. A young girl who had driven up from New Jersey was cooing at his knee, while a besotted male was jabbering "You're great... Just great." After a few minutes of diplomacy, Martyn subtly eased them out the door.
"A compliment is a compliment," he said, sitting back down. "But as you get older you see things in a different light. You develop your own ears and they govern whether you're good or not." He then laughed and in a British accent said, "But I guess I'm better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
Martyn, 28, is an intriguing cult figure. In 1965 [sic] he was the first white artist on Island Records, the independent label that was to add Jethro Tull and the Spencer Davis Group and currently is heavily involved with reggae. Martyn's albums (he's made eight) now sell about 200.000 copies worldwide - not a lot by today's standards, but enough to keep him, his wife Beverley and their three children, alive and well.
He hasn't been stateside since 1974. In the meantime he's spent a year "linging about in paradise, in Jamaica, just lying on my bum." He's back touring "because it's very simple. It's like a plumber. It's my job, and I'm no good at anything else."
Indifferent to commercial trends, he has a brilliant personal style. His roots are folk, but he has grafted on all sorts of jazz syncopations, blues and electronic foot-pedal effects earning him the status of 'the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar'. On I'd Rather Be The Devil, an old Skip James song, he gets his bass strings to sound like a clavinet while Echoplex and fuzz-tone devices contribute inklings of Led Zeppelin's Dazed And Confused and Hendrix's If 6 Was 9.
Martyn is a solo act, but if you were outside the room you'd think a whole band was playing. His vocals have a slurred-note quality that is often unpredictable. He's an original, and you can't say that much anymore.
Mose Allison, a timeless practitioner of cerebral blues, upheld his half of the bill with his distinctive style of atonal phrasing and free-verse vignettes. A highlight of his act was his Setting Sun, later recorded by Johnny Rivers. Like Martyn, he has been his own man and refused to turn commercial.
John played the Boston Jazz Workshop for four consecutive nights, two shows per night. This review was made during John's final evening and printed in The Boston Globe, Saturday 18 June 1977.